April 4, 2011

Communicating on Africana

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During the past four months, campus has been rife with controversy over the University’s decision to restructure the Africana Studies and Research Center from the direct oversight of the Provost’s office to the administrative control of the College of Arts and Sciences. Students, faculty and staff in the Africana community have stood against Provost Kent Fuchs and President David Skorton every step of the way, and administrators in turn have avowed that they hold Africana’s best interests at heart. The University by no means handled the decision properly, and the symbolic importance of the Center’s autonomy should be recognized, given its creation following the Willard Straight Hall Takeover of 1969. However, after months of unyielding protest, we are at an impasse. The University has made it clear that it will not reverse this decision, and it is time for the Africana community to accept the move — regardless of how it was handed down — and work with administrators towards common goals and a productive future. Administrators, in turn, must stop cloaking their motives and misrepresenting their interactions with Africana leadership if these changes are to move forward peaceably. Open, honest and sincere dialogue is crucial to the future of this program at the University.The Africana Center’s move to Arts and Sciences is regrettable. The reporting arrangement to the Office of the Provost is unique among departments at Cornell and among Africana studies programs nationwide. While it may make more sense from an administrative perspective to consolidate resources and align with national trends, it is without question understandable why many feel that this change undermines the Africana Center’s autonomy, symbolic importance and embodiment of the rich history and ideals behind the Willard Straight Takeover.Despite Day Hall’s assertion that this is a move that has been in the works since 2005, it appears that the University never effectively communicated its plans to Africana leadership and those most affected by the decision. While it is probable that the University had internal discussions about the change and some indication of it may have surfaced around the Center, administrators utterly failed in fostering productive dialogue and reaching a consensus between the parties involved.The University has also blatantly misrepresented its communication with Africana Center representatives. Most recently, a statement posted to the Cornell Chronicle Thursday created the perception that Africana Center Director Robert Harris reviewed and agreed with the University’s budget plan for the Center. In fact, Harris declined to accept the budget while the move to Arts and Sciences was still set to occur. The University’s consistent lack of objectivity has helped perpetuate the brunt of the protests surrounding the Africana Center’s move.  The administration should have been more forthright in communicating the motives behind the move, instead of disingenuously using buzz words like “administrative restructuring” and “streamlining” or vague claims of a need to free up time in the Office of the Provost. If in fact the decision has been on the table for years, members of the Africana community deserve an honest answer to the question, “Why now?”Ultimately, this was a unilateral decision handed down at an inopportune time, which warranted much of the outrage and backlash that ensued. Regardless, the University has asserted that it will not back down from this move, and it is time for Africana to accept the changes –– however begrudgingly –– and look toward the future. It is no longer productive to continue protesting the inevitable. We strongly believe that Africana’s ideals will not fall by the wayside if the community remains dedicated to them and to the Center’s continued existence and strength.On the surface, the University has attempted to align itself with these ideals by dedicating additional resources to the Center. While this certainly seems like a Day Hall public relations move to make up for the relocation to Arts and Sciences, it is a move that the Africana community should not fight any longer. Rather, it should use these resources to help develop the Center’s role within Arts and Sciences to effectively sustain Africana’s values and goals. The Center is receiving a 50 percent increase in budget over the next five years and a Ph.D. program that never previously existed. These measures undoubtedly add value to the Africana Center, regardless of the true motives behind them.If, down the road, the Africana Center has its budget unfairly cut or is stripped of its autonomy by the College of Arts and Sciences, community action would be warranted to reverse the decision, and Africana leaders could point to the promises made by this administration during this move for future support. At this time, however, the Africana community should accept the additional resources, look towards the future and begin to rebuild its relationship with the University.